How to make sense of longitudinal qualitative data

These are the practical steps involved in the approach I’m taking to making sense of longitudinal qualitative data. In my case, these were 5 interviews with 18 people over 2 years. I had a interview guide for each one which was structured around the objective biographical markers pertinent to the participants (they were all students in the same year, doing different degrees, at the same university) but within the constraints of these reference points, the interviews were effectively unstructured. My initial analysis involved a pretty in depth iterative process of familiarisation, which I’ll write about in another post. After this, I’m taking what I term a morphogenetic approach to biographical research, aiming to reconstruct the crucial moments – which spark of processes of personal change and growth – underlying the direction in which an individual’s psychobiography unfolds.

My intention here is to get to the causal processes underlying the empirical observations I’ve made about participant’s biographies. The central claim underlying this is that an individual’s reflexivity, in the form of their internal conversations, shapes the direction their life takes – and how they change as part of the process – through its application within the context of specific ‘issues’ created by all manner of life events. It’s in the attempts to resolve such issues that we become who we are. While we exercise deliberative agency, we do so in a truncated way – we shape the direction our lives take but we do so, on the basis of fallible knowledge, through our attempts to cope with the personal issues posed by a social world which forever outstrips our control and full knowledge. There’s an order to any individual’s biographical trajectory which can be causally explained but, crucially, that order is something which emerges relationally rather than solely from the subjective intentions of the subject or the objective properties of their circumstances.

These are the practical steps I’m taking as I go through the data. I’ve got ‘points to watch for’ (e.g. the move to university, first year exams, moving into private accommodation etc) which are party based on the interview schedule and partly emergent from the familiarisation process. However though I want to make sure I’m particularly watchful for these events, I otherwise want to stay as close to the data as possible.

  1. Locate an event that interrupts the stable reproduction of personal life: any event that gives rise to an ‘issue’ which preoccupies the internal conversation of the subject. What social domain(s) do the factors underlying the event occur in? 
  2. How does the subject construe the event itself and the factors underlying it?
  3. How do they seek resolution of the ‘issue’? If they seek resources to support their attempt to resolve the ‘issue’, what are these, what is their history with them and what social domains do they reside within?
  4. If/when they resolve the ‘issue’, how has it changed the subject as a person? How has it changed circumstances across all social domains?

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